Challenging things come in threes for inventive pianist

By Calvin Wilson
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH  
01/17/2010

If you’re into the same old jazz, Vijay Iyer might not be for you. Not that the pianist avoids jazz and pop standards; his well-regarded trio album last year, “Historicity,” includes one of the most cherished tunes in the Great American Songbook, Leonard Bernstein’s enchantingly optimistic “Somewhere.”

But it’s a measure of Iyer’s open-ear artistry that he takes that oft-performed piece to some surprisingly new places.

Perhaps best known for leading an acclaimed quartet featuring saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa — and for serving as a sideman in Mahanthappa’s quartet — Iyer is nonetheless well-acquainted with the piano-bass-drums format.

“It’s an interesting challenge,” Iyer, 38, said from his home in New York. “Over the last several years, I’ve made quartet albums, and each had a few trio tracks on it. But this is the first full album where it’s all just that.

“I’m very fond of the great rhythm sections, and not just in the jazz world,” he said, singling out the trio on Jimi Hendrix’s album “Band of Gypsys” (Hendrix on guitar, Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums) for “the power of it, the depth of the groove.”

The same may be said of Iyer’s trio, which includes bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore and will appear this week at Jazz at the Bistro. The New York Times hailed the band as “one that’s flexible, intuitive and strategic.”

Among the most popular configurations in jazz, the piano-bass-drums trio has made it possible for some of the music’s most iconic pianists — from Bill Evans to Thelonious Monk — to make some of their most enduring statements.

Iyer cites “Money Jungle” — a classic 1962 recording featuring pianist Duke Ellington, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach — as being particularly influential on his trio approach.

“You really hear a conversation between individuals,” he said. “It’s music, but it’s also action — it has its own kind of beauty and simplicity and elegance. And it also has a spontaneity that jumps out at you. You really hear the liveness of it, and that’s what I listen for.”

“Historicity” is something of a departure for Iyer, who has earned praise as a composer as well as a pianist. The album features four original tunes, but six by other composers: Bernstein, Stevie Wonder (“Big Brother”), saxophonist and St. Louis legend Julius Hemphill (“Dogon A.D.”), iconoclastic pianist Andrew Hill (“Smoke Stack”), hip-hop artist M.I.A. (“Galang”) and soul-jazz keyboardist Ronnie Foster (“Mystic Brew”).
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The pieces were “pretty carefully and specifically arranged for the trio,” Iyer said. “It’s like each song’s history is sitting in with you, and becomes part of the band for that moment.”

Along with his longtime collaborator Mahanthappa, Iyer is among the few Indian-Americans to make it big in jazz.

“I don’t play Indian music,” he said. “But I’ve thought a lot about that heritage, and about that music — and worked with a lot of the ideas from that music, and worked with a lot of Indian musicians. It’s very important to me and very close to me, and it informs what I do.”

A native of Rochester, N.Y., Iyer became interested in music as a child.

“I started on violin lessons, when I was 3 years old,” he said. But he learned to play piano “by ear, little by little.”

In high school, Iyer dabbled in rock and pop before heeding the call of jazz.

“I’d been improvising in my own ignorant way,” he said with a laugh. “So I took it upon myself to get some knowledge. There was a local jazz pianist who gave me two or three lessons and turned me on to some stuff. And I started checking out records from the library, and took some theory and harmony classes. I jumped in.”

In a culture that tends to value the trendy over the substantial, the commercial viability of jazz is constantly being debated.

Iyer said he’s confident that the music will continue to find its audience. Like quite a few of his contemporaries, including pianists Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran and Matthew Shipp, he’s interested in making new connections.

“It’s not an agenda to make jazz relevant,” Iyer said. “Because to us, it is.”

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